From time to time people may say things like:
“Once you pass a certain age, you are who you are.”
“People don’t change much after age ___….”
“You can’t teach and old dog new tricks….”
While most of the time we don’t mean any harm when we say such things, it does highlight a tendency in our society and in the way we think—that at some point in adulthood we just stop changing, stop growing, stop evolving. In essence, we buy into the idea that as we get older, we slow down our human development and become less capable of change. Perhaps that’s why many adults of varied ages encounter strong opposition from family, friends, and co-workers when they do decide to make a major change or if they exhibit steady growth in another direction that does not resemble their past or even their present. Have you ever had that experience from either side? Have you seen someone you know change unexpectedly? How did you react? Or, have you gone through a major shift in you life and noticed strong reactions of others?
Just to be clear, when I talk about human evolution and change I’m not talking about human growth the way that the self-help industry does. Surely you’ve seen the overstocked shelves at your favorite bookstore. You have a million choices—books that tell you in their title that you should be able to tweak this or that or try this method, and change will be easy.
Some real titles:
Improve Your Life the Quick Way [part one]
Anybody Can Be Cool…but Awesome Takes Practice
Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life
What to Say When You Talk to Yourself
Awaken the Giant Within
Just Stop Having Problems, Stupid!
And I didn’t even delve into the myriad of fad diet and exercise books. The basic premise of these books is to convince you that change is easy and fast. Just give your money, read the book, and you’re set. Go to the lectures or workshops. You’ll change quickly. Of course, none of it is true. Fad diets don’t work. Exercise methods and techniques are just made up and don’t work for most people. Mental exercises that are quick and easy don’t have a lasting effect. And anything you have to keep paying for in order to develop as a person is already set up to fail.
Because human evolution happens on the inside.
And it’s based on who you are, what you’ve experienced, and how you see the world. And human evolution is not easy or quick or simple. There are certainly obstacles in front of us if we engage in the continuing process of personal growth and change. One of the main obstacles is baggage, something I’m sure all of you are well aware of. Baggage is that part of our identity that is informed by what people have told us about ourselves, who they have said we are from the beginning and who they say we are today. Now some of that can be positive, don’t get me wrong. But it’s still an obstacle to growth, because the old paradigms that people give us are just that—old. They are past. When we engage in human evolution the old paradigms don’t work anymore. And that’s a conflict.
For example, psychologists like Robert Kegan refer to the idea of the terrible twos. You know, any parents out there, of what I speak. The toddler turns green and becomes a tiny ball of rage and fury. And their vocabulary seems to only include one word: NO!!!!!!
Now there are two ways to view this. One: the kid is out to get us, terrible, and mad at the parents–just intolerable. The kid has only one goal in mind and that is to say and do the opposite of what we tell them to do and therefore to ruin our lives until they get a little older. And then it will happen again when they are a teenager.
Or, the second way of seeing this: the twos aren’t terrible at all.
The toddlers are becoming.
The constant No! is simply a denial of the old self [the baby]. It’s a repudiation of the old way of being. The toddlers’ declaration is to their old self, which was embedded in the world they knew as a baby. Now, as two-year-olds, they are evolving. They are becoming.
Human evolution, simply put, is about asking these two questions:
What is self?
What is other?
Who am I? And what is the world around me? A example across cultures is related to how we talk about the weather. Say it’s a beautiful, sunny day—not too hot, not too cold. In the West, people would say: Wow, it is a nice day. But in other cultures, like the Amerindians of the Americas, they would say: I am in a nice day. See, in Western cultures the weather [the day] is separate from our being and is it whereas in other cultures, the weather is not separate from their being, and so they are in and the day is not an it. This matters, how we see ourselves and how we see the world.
This is reflected in a Gospel scene in which Jesus of Nazareth might as well have taught a Greek philosophy and psychology class 101. He asks his followers: “Who do people say that I am?” And of course, the disciples answer with all the identities that other people gave to Jesus–John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets. And then Jesus asks his followers: But who do you say that I am? Peter, not known for tact or using his brain much, blurts out: You are the Messiah. This made Jesus mad and so he told Peter and company to stop talking about him with other people.
Jesus could very well have been that infuriating toddler.
Who do people say I am? No! Who do you say I am? No!
Eventually, Jesus made it clear how he saw himself and how he saw the world and no one liked it. Jesus saw himself suffering alongside those who suffered, those who were pushed to the margins; Jesus saw himself far from the religious elites and the temple; Jesus saw himself as constantly evolving, towards a place and a goal that would never be realized. Jesus knew his evolution would take him to dangerous places and that he probably wouldn’t survive it physically. But Jesus also saw the world and the human beings in it as something worth fighting for, worth loving, worth showing compassion to. In essence, it was Jesus’ desire to pour his whole self out in the world, regardless of what others called him or tried to make him.
And I think this should be a really encouraging thing for us. We don’t have to be two years old to undergo an evolution. We don’t have to stop changing and growing after adolescence. We can keep going all through our lives. We can keep becoming. After all, we are human beings, are we not? We are humans who are being….we are people who are becoming.